Australian High Commission
Papua New Guinea

111212 - Fernberg Lecture 2012

10 December 2012



Papua New Guinea: Australia’s Closest Neighbour in Transition

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.

Let me begin by thanking Her Excellency the Governor and Mr McCosker for this invitation to Government House to speak to you about our dynamic nearest neighbour, the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. The Governor’s commitment to promoting dialogue in Queensland on international affairs is very welcome, and in no way surprising to those of us who knew Penny well as a dedicated and thoughtful senior member of the Foreign Service.

I also thank the Australian Institute of International Affairs through Vice President Rebecca Hall for this opportunity.

Your Honour the Chief Justice, it is a privilege to speak before you today. I remember well your own strong interest in global affairs from a conversation we had several years ago in Berlin. And I am conscious of your ongoing support for the judicial links between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

I extend particular appreciation to Mrs Jane Prentice MP for her continuing support for the relationship with PNG. Jane has been a frequent visitor to PNG in the last several years, helping underline the point that our national interest in that country is, and must always be, bipartisan.

One of Jane’s contributions to PNG, made in a previous capacity with the Brisbane City Council, is represented by the visible presence on Port Moresby’s roads of former Brisbane buses, servicing schools and providing local transport. In fact they retain their Brisbane destination signs, which their PNG drivers adjust according to whim. So it’s not unusual to be driving, say, near the traditional water village of Hanuabada and to pass a bus apparently on its way to Strathpine via Garden city and Wynnum North. The sight is sometimes enough to make this Queenslander slightly homesick.

I look around the room and I see many who have lived and worked in Papua New Guinea. They are members of aspecial and surprisingly numerous Australian tribe – those Australians for whom PNG is part of their personal history. I happen to be a member of that tribe myself. I was raised in Papua New Guinea in what was, in retrospect, an era of hope – the decade prior to Independence, when my parents and their contemporaries were working, in the narrow timeframe available to them, to prepare the first generation of leaders to shoulder the burden of self-determination.

I count as members of this same tribe those Australians whose forebears fought and died at places like Milne Bay, Sananda, and Isurava on the Kokoda Track. And the more than three thousand Australians who walk the Track each year. And indeed, those veterans of the Papua New Guinean campaigns who are still with us. We were privileged to host a return visit this year, 70 years on from the Kokoda campaign, of a group of former diggers – all men in their late 80s and 90s. They joined me only a few weeks ago at a service with former Papuan carriers and soldiers in Popondetta. To be present at their reunion, and to listen as one of the old Australians recited a poetic tribute to the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, was a truly moving experience.

There’s also a community of present-day Australians who find it difficult to get the country out of their system – business people working on the commercial relationship, engineers and service providers working in the mines, professionals who keep returning for one more project, one more posting. (I am happy to say that there are several repeat offenders at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby.)

The focus of these modern day links is this state of Queensland, with the strongest concentration of links – naturally– in the far north. Communities such as Cairns see the current rapid expansion of the PNG economy as representing a substantial opportunity for their own recovery. Two-way trade with PNG is worth AUD 7.2 billion, and Australian companies have won contracts with the LNG project worth at least three billion. Investment in both directions is in the billions. Queensland companies are by far the most active in this activity.

The prominence given to PNG art at the freshly opened Asia Pacific Triennial at the Gallery of Modern Art is another kind of reminder of the links enjoyed and promoted, on behalf of Australia, by this state. The Sepik artists who constructed the HausTambaran, or Spirit House, at the entry to the exhibition, have certainly been made to feel at home here. So much so that they welcomed Roxanne and me to “their place” when we walked into GOMA on Saturday.

But Papua New Guinea is a blind spot for many other Australians. With some notable exceptions, the interest of the Australian media in PNG is superficial, and as a consequence our understanding of the dynamics in PNG is quite limited. We often hear an alarmist view that highlights the implications of PNG’s undoubted problems for our own selves. It is a shame that this low level of understanding can even sometimes be the case in Queensland – a state whose most northerly island lies less than four kilometres from the PNG mainland.

Most Australians would be astonished by the extent to which Papua New Guineans understand what makes us tick. They are closely familiar with our politics and our popular culture, including of course the personal histories of every member of each team in the Australian National Rugby League. I tell you in absolute seriousness that there are more Maroons supporters in PNG than in Queensland. I have never felt more like a Rock Star than when, with Mal Meninga, I led the Kangaroos out of Port Moresby airport terminal earlier this year. The crowd chanted the name of every one of our procession as we came into public view. Well, everyone’s except mine.

Ladies and gentlemen, my central theme this evening is that Papua New Guinea is a country experiencing rapid transition, and that the changes underway there have significant implications for both PNG and Australia – and particularly this state of Queensland. We need to keep up.

PNG was the seventh fastest growing country in the world in 2011 – a year that sealed a decade of uninterrupted expansion. It is estimated to have grown by a further 9 per cent this year. Further substantial growth is expected in 2013. Industry has made the largest contribution to growth, boosted by the construction of the 16 billion dollar liquefied natural gas project.

Demographics tell anotherimportant part of the story. The population is probably growing by as much as three per cent each year, and has now reached something like 7 million – that makes PNG second only to Australia in the Pacific region, with double the population of New Zealand. Currently 40 per cent of Papua New Guineans are younger than fifteen. By 2030 the population will have grown to 10 million. It is projected to be approaching the current population of Australia by 2050.

This combination of economic and population growth is not without implications for regional dynamics. PNG is set to take on more of a leadership role in the Pacific – we have already seen the Government of Papua New Guinea begin to exert a firm leadership role in encouraging Fiji back onto the democratic path, and PNG has for some years now been a strong troop contributor to RAMSI - the Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands. There are now PNG military observers with the UN in South Sudan and Darfur. PNG’s declared attitude to the asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island is that PNG should be making a contribution, as a serious regional player, to what is a serious regional problem.

The profound changes underway in PNG come with some serious challenges, putting strain on health and education services, and making the country more challenging to govern. Administrative capacity has been struggling for years to keep up with rapid demographic change, which is seen most acutely in the growth in informal settlements on the edge of key centres such as Port Moresby and Lae – a major contributor to the law and order challenge in these centres. The security situation, while generally misunderstood and often distorted, remains a significant impediment to the country’ s development.

The health sector is still in very bad shape overall. At 733 deaths per 100 000 births, maternal mortality is the highest in the region. Preventable diseases remain widespread. Pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria claim the most lives. Tuberculosis is also serious, including but by no means only in the border region of Western province, adjoining Queensland in the Torres Strait. With some impressive work by Papuan New Guinean health workers, supported by resources provided byAusAID and others, TB mortality rates in that region have fallen by 80 per cent in the last year, and the World Health Organisation has described the work of TB detection and treatment there as best practice.

As Australians we can be pleased that our aid program has played an important role in mitigating the difficulties that have arisen in post-Independence PNG. It has saved thousands of lives. Its achievements over the last twelve months have included the delivery of 1.5 million text books to almost 4,000 schools, the construction of hundreds of classrooms and teacher accommodation blocks, and subsidies to eliminate school fees in the first three years of school. The number of female court magistrates has been increased, thanks to the Australian aid program, from 10 in 2004 to 685 in 2011. In this field, and all others, there needs to be a much stronger role for women in decision making if he country is to reach its true potential. Courts, corrections facilities and community centres have been built. Essential drugs have been distributed by AusAID to thousands of remote health centres.

The official assistance offered by Australia is complementary with the efforts of the churches, who continue to provide at least 50 per cent of the health and education services in the country, and of NGOs and volunteers, many of who are Australian.

But Papua New Guineans want more from their own Government. And following a period of considerable turmoil they now have a government that clearly wants to tackle the challenge of improving health and education services, and is more serious about dealing with the scourge of corruption in the public sector.

So it is in many ways a time of hope. The new Government of Papua New Guinea is acutely conscious that significant, albeit lesser economic opportunities have been missed before, and seems determined to avoid this happening again. This is a Government that wants to change things. It has the benefit of widespread support in the Parliament, and looks set to enjoy at least thirty months, under new constitutional arrangements, of political stability.

To understand Papua New Guinea – the maturity or otherwise of its institutions, the commitment of its people to democracy – it is important to appreciate what really happened in the twelve turbulent months leading to Peter O’Neill’s finally undisputed emergence, on 3 August this year, at the head of this new and energetic government.

It is a story of painful generational succession - one which tested the country’s constitution and political institutions more than any other moment in its post-independence history. It was a crisis that lasted exactly a year and a day.

If you will permit me a digression, the day it all began – the 2nd of August last year - was a unusual day for me.

It was the day I became the first Australian High Commissioner in more than twenty years to visit the site of the enormous Panguna mine on the island of Bougainville. You will know that Panguna was once the largest copper mine in the world – until a dispute focused on landowner and environmental concerns morphed into a bitter struggle by secessionists to break Bougainville away from PNG. This became, in the 1990s, the worst conflict the Pacific had seen since the dark days of World War 2. The mine lies dormant for the moment, and its future is intertwined with the future of the island. All this is another story, but it is worth mentioning in passing as an abiding strategic issue of importance to Australia.

In any case, if you had been there on the morning of the 2nd of August last year you would have seen me walking – with dignity I hope - under the raised boom-gate that is still used by former members of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to control access to the Panguna district. You would have seen me towing, by its foreleg, a very large pig – the ceremonial price for Australia’s re entry into the area. I understand from reports I heard later in the day that it was delicious, but cannot confirm this.

It was an eventful day. Late that afternoon, on the long drive back to Buka town, our vehicle became stuck at mid-point when fording a rising river. My young colleagues – a group of impressive young women – and I managed to extract ourselves from the vehicle and escape the raging stream with the assistance of hundreds of locals who magically appeared on the scene (as they always seem to when an expatriate encounters trouble). It was as I climbed to the top of a grassy river bank, barefoot, muddy and soaked from the neck down, that I received a text advising that Peter O’Neill had just been elected on the floor of Parliament. And it was in that state that I made my congratulatory phone call to him. Such is the romance of diplomacy.

For Papua New Guinea, the twelve months that followed were marked by two separate but related crises. The first, which peaked in the December/January period a year ago, was essentially a dispute between O’Neill and the man he had overthrown – Sir Michael Somare – over who was rightful Prime Minister. The court backed Somare, and Parliament strongly backed O’Neill. In circumstances that would have challenged any constitution, the Public Service, the PNGDF and the Police Force largely accepted the principle that a Prime Minister must have the backing of Parliament. We appeared, for a while there, to have two of everything in Papua New Guinea: Governors General, Prime Ministers, military and police commanders. But O’Neill was the effective Prime Minister throughout.

There were several moments in this first crisis when attempts were made to get the security forces involved. This is an important point. On each of these occasions the leaders of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and the PNGDF showed remarkable maturity. They refrained from becoming involved despite the significant pressures placed on them. And they exercised very good judgment in the disciplinary approach taken in dealing with the small disaffected elements within their midst that were tempted to support one side or another.

The populace certainly did not behave as if there was a crisis. Papua New Guineans understood clearlythe political dispute, but it was quite striking how people remained calm, and how everyday life and business continued as normal in Port Moresby, and across the country.

I certainly wasn’t short of advice at this time – from the Australian media and commentators - about how Australia should conduct itself. The Australian Government was active behind the scenes: encouraging restraint and persuading the parties, through confidential dialogue, to keep what is a political dispute in the political arena. At a local level we undertook some successful, creative diplomacy with the police and defence forces to keep the temperature down. But in the end it was Papua New Guineans who kept a lid on things.

Through this first crisis we – and more importantly, the PNG people, took the view that the only hope of restoring real political stability lay at the ballot box, in the national elections scheduled for June-July this year. This is why we were all so concerned when a second crisis emerged in February-March this year, as powerful negative forces within the PNG Parliament began to suggest that the constitutionally mandated election should be deferred, perhaps indefinitely.

For a moment there appeared to be a real risk that PNG would walk away from its proud democratic record, which has seen it hold elections every five years since Independence.

But the people spoke in no uncertain terms, staging peaceful protests in support of their right to vote. The local media cleared its throat, and letters to the editor sent a consistent message. Slowly Parliament came to accept that its mandate would in fact expire, and elections would be held.

It was in this context that Australia moved to provide unprecedented support to PNG to help ensure the success of the elections.

AusAID’s support to the elections totalled $18.2 million, including additional surge support to assist the PNG Electoral Commission in areas including procurement, logistics, training and human resources, through the deployment of 23 Australian Civilian Corps specialists. The Australian Defence Force moved over 2700 PNGDF and police personnel throughout PNG, enabling them to provide the much-needed security for elections in the Highlands, and delivered over 204,900kgs of election material. The AFP built a new radio communications network to assist the PNG police to exercise its responsibilities.

But once again, the best part of the story is what Papua New Guineans achieved themselves. To conduct an election in PNG – a country with more than 800 distinct languages and with some of the world’s toughest topography – is no mean feat. It takes place over a fortnight, involves more than three thousand candidates and 9800 polling places, and requires almost five thousand small polling teams to travel – by helicopter, boat and foot – to some of the remotest places on Earth to deliver the poll.

As Senator Carr said last week in Port Moresby, if Papua New Guinea can deliver an election in such circumstances, then no other country has an excuse not to trust the people, and not to stage a democratic election.

Was it a free and fair election? Well, it was a relatively safe election, and I have no doubt that the overall result reflected the will of the people. In many coastal and urban areas the polls would have been familiar in their conduct to anyone with a western perspective. In some parts of the Highlands this was not the case, and the motto “Vote early, vote often” had particular application. But let me give you two brief anecdotes that will put this last comment into perspective.

In one region, a corrupt local candidate arranged to procure the ballot papers intended for a remote community, and to have the papers filled out by his own supporters. The community in question walked en masse for two and a half days out of their mountain fastness to the local provincial centre, demanding – and ultimately obtaining – their democratic right.

And in a case witnessed by High Commission monitors, a community of seven clans found itself in a situation where insufficient ballot papers had been provided. Consultations were held, and it was agreed that the papers available should simply be divided evenly into seven – irrespective of the size of the respective clans. All agreed that this was in the best spirit of consensus making, and would best reflect the collective will. We Westerners should hesitate before we criticise.

But what now? What lies before this new Government in PNG?
Translating economic growth into real development will be the ultimate test. Whether the country’s leaders can achieve this is the core question in Papua New Guinea today.

The new leadership grew up in an independent Papua New Guinea. This makes them more confident in dealing with Australia. It naturally makes them more inclined to be selective in their international dealings, taking each external relationship on its merits. We need to understand and accept this.

So when we take a step back and imagine the future shape of Australia’s nearest neighbour, we should be imagining a country led by people more inclined to be assertive and selective in their dealings with Australia, with a population approaching contemporary Australia. Over time it will likely play a different kind of role in regional affairs. It will remain confronted by very significant development challenges, and yet have access to unprecedented new wealth.

It stands to reason, then, that our relationship with PNG will change. We already recognise that development cooperation is already only one part of our relationship, and that others – trade, business and investment – are becoming increasingly important.

The initialling last week by Foreign Ministers Carr and Pato of a broad-based Economic Cooperation Treaty, to replace the Development Cooperation Treaty as the agreement at the heart of the relationship, points to another kind of structural shift.

But Australia will have an important supportive role to play in PNG’s development into the foreseeable future. Over the years, our focus will increasingly be to help PNG unlock its own resource potential, and to translate increased revenues into broad-based development. Education, and skills transfer, will need to remain at the heart of this. The Queensland TAFE system is already participating actively in this sector. Our detailed and intensive work to assist PNG in developing sovereign wealth funds to properly manage resource revenue is also very important.

The most helpful Australian approach to PNG is one which understands that it is only Papua New Guineans who can bring about lasting change, but which remains committed to supporting those who are willing to lead in a positive direction. And on early indications, the current Government of Papua New Guinea is very much in that category.

Ladies and gentlemen,we will need to keep up with the changes underway in Papua New Guinea. The assumptions we have made will increasingly need to be questioned, and the weary cynicism that has crept into our national thinking about PNG over time is unlikely to be much help to us in the years ahead. Our perspective on Papua New Guinea will need to understand that greater prosperity, security and stability for Papua New Guineans is in our own interests – as Australians, and as Queenslanders. To suggest, however, that self interest is our only motivation is to misunderstand the depth, and warmth, of the personal links that underpin the Australia–PNG relationship.

Thank you.
Ian Kemish AM, Australian High Commissioner to PNG